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Is Larkin good for you?

Johnny Lyons
Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin, by Clive James, Picador, 95 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1529028829 In a brief interview (“Books that made me”, The Guardian, October 5th) coinciding with the publication of his latest book, the late Clive James responded to a question about the last book that made him cry: It was 20 minutes ago when I was reading Larkin’s poem “To the Sea”. Sometimes I could swear his memories were mine. Although Australia and Britain have very different beaches, when he was near the sea he always thought it was his element. James’s answer rings entirely and movingly true. He has been writing perceptively and lovingly about the poetry of Philip Larkin for most of his life. Indeed, one of the chief virtues of James’s lapidary essays on Larkin is their suggestion, perhaps even demonstration, that the more perceptive one is about Larkin’s poems the more admirable and lovable they become. The magic of James’s criticism is that it sends us running back to Larkin, having deepened and rekindled our admiration and enthusiasm for a poet who must surely count as one of the greatest in English literature. My own response to reading James’s collected essays on ‘Don Juan of Hull’ is to consider the unfashionable question of whether Philip Larkin is good for us. The very idea of asking whether poetry is good for you may strike the reader as naïve or beside the point. For surely poetry’s purpose is to delight rather than instruct. The moment we moralise poetry, the argument goes, is the moment we murder it. There is, of course, much to agree with in this viewpoint, but there is also a lingering suspicion that it doesn’t quite encompass the whole truth. Larkin’s poetry, in particular, encourages us to take a more capacious view of the matter. This isn’t because his poetry is didactic in some straightforwardly moralistic way; indeed nothing could be more alien to Larkin than the vulgar notion that poetry is meant to make you a nicer person. Rather his poems, if we let them, awaken us to a certain sensibility that is not exhausted by an appreciation of their expressive originality and sublimity. In short, there’s an undeniable sense in which Larkin’s poems have the effect of making us a little deeper, perhaps even wiser too. This isn’t to suggest that all his poems are edifying. Many are simply…



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